Having strolled into an American Literature classroom of the year 2001, a Dondero High School alumnus of 1975 would be deeply nostalgic. Not only would the orange walls, green carpeting, and uncomfortable desks be the same, despite blue and white hallway and locker renovations, but the course content itself would have remained essentially unchanged as well. The alumnus might find some new text-- book covers, new computer handouts (rather than dittos), new bodies dressed in modern clothing, and perhaps a new, innovative unit on literature of the Vietnam War, but the curriculum of 2001 would be the same linear-sequential, historical content-focused, white-male canonized curriculum of 1975. In this sense, Dondero is every high school.
An intellectual traditionalist, by W.H. Schubert's (1986) definition, might ask, "Is this so wrong?" Indeed, is there anything wrong with a desire to "develop the mind and become acquainted with life's great ideas and questions" through ". . . acquaintance with great books and ... the great mysteries and events oflife?" (p. 15). Though our curriculum is far from "wrong," we need to make serious efforts to make it more "right" for our students. The modern American culture as a whole, which inevitably encompasses the individual cultures of our students, must be more than merely acknowledged by teachers and curriculum writers; culture must be inherent within the curriculum.
While I am not in favor of completely tossing the Western canon and replacing it entirely with "contemporary" literature, I do think that the canon needs to be expanded and redefined. It should be agreed by all that many themes found in "classic" literature are timeless, and that students use these human themes to connect to lives of the past. I truely believe that students should know Shakespeare (not American, but still a classic) because he teaches history and tells a great story at the same time. I think students should read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because Mark Twain unravels the irony and hypocrisy of racism in a way that no other writer can. I think students should read the poetry of e.e. cummings because with it he can tell the story of war like no other. However, a new canon should consist of what we consider "great human" literature, rather than "classic" literature, and "great human" should be redefined.
Great human literature should be delineated as such because it speaks to people-- to all people. Therefore, timeless, historical themes can and should move people in the same way that modern and relevant themes do as well. We, as a literate world, must continually add to our canon because new literature Wills it. Would a new mother deny love to her child because she already had three wonderful children? Likewise, we must not push away contemporary literature because we have "enough good stuff" already.
Moreover, we must invite multicultural authors of American literature into the canon because we are a multicultural society. Rather than acknowledging token writers, just one or two voices from any given group, many voices must be infused. These are the people who write of America now; these are the people who discuss issues which relate to our students' lives as they know them. The bridge between classic and contemporary can only be built if we reconsider what our students will read, as well as how we will teach it.
Modern Versus Postmodern Paradigms
I also believe that the traditional curricular structure of American Literature needs to be revamped in order to meet our students' needs. Very few secondary classrooms are reaching their students by approaching the teaching ofAmerican Literature in anything other than a lock-step manner. While some segments of society may try to move forward, most public schools are stymied by their inability or unwillingness to shift from a modern to postmodern paradigm of educating.
I agree with W.E. Doll (1993) in his urge for educators to make the transition from modernist linear-sequencing and cause-effect relations, which are characteristic of most current American Literature curriculum models, to a more postmodern curriculum matrix. To exemplify, Dondero's American Literature course, like many of its namesakes across the country, starts with literature of Native Americans and moves along a timeline through literary periods and ideologies, often only striving for the beginning of the twentieth century. Teachers show students how the literature of each movement, such as the Age of Reason or Romanticism was shaped by values and beliefs of the time, and how themes carry across various genres of the period. Most teachers also discuss how failures, misconceptions, or historical influences in one era cause a shift in ideology for another, very much reflective of Doll's discussion of cause-effect relations.
In desperate attempts to hold student interest, renegade teachers will try to supplement units with more "modern" examples of themes, such as using current songs of freedom to accompany Patrick Henry's Speech at the Virginia Convention. Efforts to connect to students' lives are evidence of sound pedagogy, but the efforts are futile when the curriculum structure itself remains unchanged. In order truly to make the post-modern transition, the face of American Literature itself must change. We need to try to construct Doll's matrix by infusing modern American cultural issues with American literary history.
Simply organizing the curriculum by relevant themes and concepts rather than literary periods would be one step toward an infused matrix. IfI tell students that our next unit will be on Realism in American Literature, my announcement is greeted by groans. "What is Realism?" they ask. "Why is this stuff so boring?" they want to know. On the other hand, if I tell them that our next unit will be on racism and interracial relations, I am certain my statement would be greeted by genuine inquiry. Then I might bring in both contemporary and historical readings and ask for student input on what they feel, is relevant literature. As Doll (1993) states, "Curriculum in a post-modern frame needs to be created (self-organized) by the classroom community, not by textbook authors" (p. 180). Issues relevant to student lives and student communities, not the order in which readings are arranged in the table of contents of our McDougal Littel books, must be the framework on which we base our curricular structure. The culture of students, rather than the publishing world, must be the dominant factor.
Culture- and Student-Centered
In their discussion of a therapeutic, student-centered approach to teaching, Fenstermacher and Soltis (1998) raise the issue of cultural and individual differences:
Often when new teachers plan their instruction, they have in mind some prototypical student: someone like themselves, perhaps, or an archetype they recall from their own days as students. This conception of the prototypical student usually shapes the way a new teacher plans to teach the subject. (p. 25)
I agree that not only is instruction often planned this way, but that course, building, and district curriculum are often written this way as well. Most curriculum is written for the typical student, but in writing curriculum in such a manner educators make assumptions about how "typical" is defined, what "typical" issues are, and what "typical" content should be taught.
According to The State of America's Children: A Report from the Children's Defense Fund (2001), one in every four of America's schoolchildren will be Hispanic in 25 years. This is just one example of a growing minority population that will force educators to redefine who a typical student is. Even more pertinent is that according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, reading and writing are our nation's lowest areas of achievement. I believe this is true, because even as we speak, our population is changing; however, our English/Language Arts curricula does not reflect the change. How we write our curriculum must take into account issues that will be relevant to many different students in order for them to achieve success in reading and writing. The student, rather than content, must be put at the center of the classroom, and our curriculum will appear as such if we make this shift to themes and concepts that connect to students' lives.
To play my role and serve as a catalyst for change, I would like to propose a new curriculum for American Literature to our district writing team. It is quite opportune that Dondero High School is moving from a one-semester to a one-year American Literature course, forcing the curriculum to be rewritten. I am certain that the original intent of the revision was to simply integrate a writing portion into the literature curriculum, but I feel that in the best interests of our students and our changing society we need to look deeply into what we structure for our students.
According to the 2001 report from the Children's Defense Fund, in 20 years the number of children entered in public and private schools is expected to increase by 7.2 percent to a total of 55.2 million. The largest area of growth is in metropolitan and urban areas, areas that are known to have the most diverse and/or largest minority populations. The number of students of color in schools has grown from 22 percent (1974) to 36 percent (1997) and continues to grow. In California, Texas, and New York, these students will soon be the majority. Royal Oak, Michigan, may not experience such a drastic shift so rapidly, but we must not ignore what is happening globally. Areas that consist of primarily White students must not be excluded from this movement as the entire nation mixes and melds. If, as Language Arts educators, we strive for better readers, writers, and communicators, then we need to reach students first through attempts to connect to their cultures, including as many groups as we can. Literacy and critical thinking will improve only after we reach our students.
Following is a skeletal outline for three of six marking periods. Unit proposals are organized around thematic ideas that I believe students will be able to connect to and extract meaning from as they find individual success in a course curriculum. I speak with confidence that my colleagues would welcome and support the philosophical changes that these units propose. The difficult part is the global shift in paradigms. The program proposal presented here is only a start, a microscopic step at best. Where do we go from here?
Children's Defense Fund (2001). The state of America's children. Boston: Beacon Press.
Doll, W.E. (1993). A post-modern perspective on curriculum (p. 180). NewYork: Teachers College Press.
Fenstermacher, G.D., & Soltis, J.F. (1998). Approaches to teaching,3r ed., (p. 25). New York: Teachers College Press.
Schubert, W.H. (1986). Curriculum: Perspective, paradigm, and possibility (p. 15). New York: Macmillan.
-Jennifer Kocis is an English/Language Arts teacher at Dondero High School in Royal Oak, Michigan.…